Since then, Israel has barred its companies from selling China any kind of high-tech military equipment that might aggravate relations with Washington. Nevertheless, despite the ban, intergovernmental ties and intelligence-sharing have flourished. Ehud Barak visited China in June 2011 -- the first Israeli defense minister to do so in a decade. Gen. Chen Bingde, head of the People's Liberation Army's General Staff, landed in Israel two months later in the first-ever visit of a Chinese military chief to Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv. The exact purpose of Chen's visit remains unclear; the Chinese Defense Ministry said only that he had arrived to "deepen understanding, enhance friendships, expand consensus and promote cooperation."
As Chinese-Israeli cooperation deepens and expands, one issue is becoming harder to avoid: Iran. China is Iran's largest destination for exports -- it buys 80 percent of Iran's oil -- and its second-largest source of imports (barely edged out by the trade hub of Dubai). Chinese trade with Iran is valued at over $30 billion -- at least three times larger than Chinese trade with Israel -- and is projected to reach $50 billion by 2015. And with sanctions edging Western companies out of Iran, China has rushed in to fill the void: At least 100 state-run companies now operate in the Islamic Republic, many heavily invested in its fuel and infrastructure industries.
The Chinese officially support a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, but have dragged their feet in condemning Tehran's move toward weapons-grade uranium enrichment. They grudgingly voted in favor of all U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Iran, but each time expressed reservations over the imposition of sanctions and urged more time be given for negotiations.
"China only agreed to sanctions that don't apply real pressure on Iran -- namely, those that don't touch its financial or energy sectors," says Yoram Evron of the University of Haifa and the Institute for National Security Studies. "China's participation might have given the sanctions legitimacy, but it has effectively weakened international pressure."
"The Chinese want to irk the Americans," adds Yitzhak Shichor, also of the University of Haifa. "If, for example, the U.S. says it wants to sell arms to Taiwan, the Chinese can do nothing but weep and wail -- instead they react on the Iranian front."
For years, Israeli officials have attempted to convince Beijing to change course on Tehran. In February 2010, a high-level Israeli delegation again traveled to China, ostensibly to reiterate the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. This time they tried a different tack: explaining the consequences of an Israeli strike on that program -- a prospect they described as inevitable should sanctions fail. "They really sat up in their chairs when we described what a preemptive attack would do to the region and on oil supplies they have come to depend on," an Israeli official said at the time.
The campaign appears to have paid off, and by mid-2010, China's tone had perceptibly changed. In June of that year, when the Security Council slapped Iran with a fourth round of sanctions, Beijing abandoned its initial opposition and ultimately backed the resolution, saying it supported a "two-way method" of continued talks alongside harder sanctions. This January, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued an unusually blunt warning that his government "adamantly opposes" Iran's nuclear-weapons drive.
China's apparent shift has not gone unnoticed in Tehran. In 2010 Ali Akbar Salehi, then head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, cautioned that "Beijing might gradually lose its respectable status in the Islamic world and wake up when it is already too late."
These days, China's diplomatic waltz -- keeping one foot in Tehran and the other in Tel Aviv -- is beginning to look increasingly awkward. As the People's Republic discovers the Jews, it should remember an old Yiddish proverb: You can't dance at two weddings at once.